In need of a sparkplug win, Arkansas heads to No. 21 South Carolina on Tuesday with an opportunity at improving its tenuous NCAA tournament position.
The Razorbacks (18-7, 7-5 SEC) are coming off a road win at LSU, but have lost two of three overall, including an ugly 83-78 loss to a bad Missouri team. The rocky stretch has Arkansas teetering on the NCAA tournament bubble.
The Gamecocks (20-5, 10-2 SEC) are sitting pretty. They are tied with No. 13 Kentucky and No. 15 Florida for first-place in the league standings. South Carolina already has 20 wins and is showing up around the 6-seed line on NCAA tournament bracket projections.
"It seems like (South Carolina) is on a mission," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "They're focused, they're going to be physical and get in the passing lanes. We're going to have to match their physicality on the boards."
The Gamecocks bounced back from a rugged triple-overtime home loss to Alabama by going on the road and topping Mississippi State. It was South Carolina's fifth win in its last six outings. But coach Frank Martin's team knows far too well that they can't afford to lighten up down the stretch.
Last season, South Carolina was 21-3 on Feb. 10, but lost five of its last eight games and was left out of the NCAA tournament field.
A similar slump to close out this regular season would be stunning.
"We have to not change our mindset, not get overwhelmed with a loss or overjoyed with a win," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said during his Monday press conference. "I hope we're able to continue to put what's in our past in the rearview mirror. This team has been pretty good with that."
Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell leads the Gamecocks in points (19.8), rebounds (7.2), steals (2.2) and is tied for the team lead in assists at 2.8. Thornwell has the full attention of Anderson and the Razorbacks.
"Not many people have stopped him so far," Anderson told reporters about his approach to slowing down the Gamecocks' star. "We're going to have to do it by committee."
Martin believes Thornwell deserves SEC Player of the Year consideration, but knows where his senior's focus is at.
"You tell me another player in the country that plays four different positions on the basketball court: Point guard, two guard, small forward, power forward, defends four different players on the court," Martin said. "(He) leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals, if I'm not mistaken, defends the best player on the other team, by the way. Tell me somebody else in the country another player that does that, let alone our conference. But I think if you asked him he'd tell you that he just wants to win and play in the NCAA tournament."
The Razorbacks are 4-2 on the road in conference play this season.
The Gamecocks won last year's meeting at Arkansas 76-61 to close out the regular season, but followed it up with loss to Georgia in their first game in the SEC tournament and ended up being left out of the NCAA tournament.
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